Genres of the “Arab Spring”: Narrating Revolutions
For over a year, we have been confronted with an overwhelming bulk of videos, sound-clips, photos, and through-the-grapevine stories and snippets of Libyan battles and daily affairs — a striking phenomenon in itself, considering the relatively little output from Libya under Gaddafi’s watchful eye. And yet, we are waiting for something more. We are eager, I would venture, for a chronology of this flurry of events; for sense and renewed insight.
There has been no shortage of efforts to document and produce stories; from the late citizen journalist Mohammed Nabbous to the countless newspapers and magazines gushing from what seems like every other garage, right down to the children urging their grandparents to tell their stories into a voice recorder for later generations. We find in Edward Said’s iconic essay “Permission to Narrate” a familiar scene; he recalls urging his family and friends to make a point of regularly recording their experience under siege in Beirut “as a starting-point to furnish the world some narrative evidence, over and above atomized and reified TV clips.” This strikes a chord particularly in Libya’s case, where most of the books that have hitherto been published on the conflict have been authored by “outsiders.” Granted, many of these accounts have been published by journalists who witnessed firsthand the events of the revolution (with, of course, the occasional armchair commentator). But it is up to Libyans to explore these stories; to gather personal accounts and make sense of them; it is up to us to contextualize them in broader narratives, to find the patterns in our history and couch them in those stories crucial to the struggle both pre and post-February 17th.
Writing about the revolution by no means limits the author to the nine months ranging from the February 15th protests of Benghazi to Gaddafi’s October 20th death. Despite the large quantities of stories and Libyan experiences in the past century that have been shared, the majority still remain quiet, if not completely untold. It is worth taking into account the rollercoaster of censorship and suffering that have suffocated Libyan voices in the past one hundred years; perhaps now is not the time to rush headfirst in revolutionary literature. Perhaps there remain old wounds that must be tended to first. As Naira Antoun of Jadaliyya puts it, “The contributions, the “before” of the revolution, are perhaps not a simple before, but rather a part of”and “rather than simply assert newness, both that which is a rupture with the past and that which is continuity must be explored. If this entails discomfort, so be it.” This war was fought, among many other (perhaps even more pressing) reasons, to take back the power to narrate Libyans’ stories from above and distribute it among those “everyday folk” who have seen and endured much and whose stories have gone largely marginalized. We must recognize this as our right. It would be a shame to relinquish the opportunity to the elusive “someone else.”
Literary Narratives of Revolution
Antoun poses a question in need of deep consideration: “Is speaking in the name of the martyrs a real possibility or a kind of violence?” In multiple contexts, we’ve witnessed quickly how this can be abused. During even the most mundane debates, martyrs often stand in as the poster children for various (often conflicting) ideologies; many political possibilities are negated under the hypothetical “is this what the martyrs died for?” Likewise, Moroccan Novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun’s attempt at fictionalizing the life of the legendary Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, has been met with exasperation due to its thinly-veiled ideological underpinnings and inaccuracies. Though it is difficult to say just how any such protection of Martyr identities could be enforced without impinging upon an author’s creative rights, it is clear that posthumous alignments with political views and ideologies are problematic both as a political tool and a creative liberty.
I’m inclined to look suspiciously at many of the purported “Arab Spring” books published within the last year; many seem to fall perfectly in line with the sort of rushed narrative that signals motives outside the realm of simply telling “our” story (a phenomenon Tunisian novelist Kamel Riahi aptly dubs “Writing on Demand”). Though I do not intend to argue that someone who did not participate in the revolution is not “qualified” to write about it (quite the opposite; varying degrees of proximity to the action are good for a rounded understanding), we must consider how we would go about “narrating” a revolution in the first place, and how realistic an endeavor to cover all aspects of it would really be. The most telling sign of an opportunistic novel, perhaps, would be an attempt at a be-all, end-all Arab Spring (or Libyan Revolution) novel, as though the magnitude of such an event could be so succinctly summarized, or done so exclusively by one person.
Though as far as timeliness is concerned, we must distinguish the work of an author writing about the revolution for the sake of writing about the revolution, and an author writing with a pressing message. Lebanese Author Elias Khoury once discussed the process of producing his 1981 novel White Masks in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War. This was a book, he felt, that could not wait until later; as he saw Lebanon devolve into chaos around him, he wrote with the intention of forcing people to face the futility of their fighting. As he was writing, a bomb from the very war he was narrating crashed through the window by his desk, leaving glass powder spread along the pages. Though he tried to clean them, he could not remove the residue. White Masks was then banned by the PLO in Beirut for its critical take on the cause, only to later become a celebrated novel among Palestinians living in Lebanon for its clarity of purpose. In this sense, writing quickly becomes something of a duty in order to thrust a mirror into the face of society and force us to come to terms with the reality of our actions.
This begs the question of how “pure” the narrative must first be kept, and if we adhere to these rules, how honest of a story are we telling? What is the “waiting period” before critical works can be embraced without suspicion of threatening the revolution? This goes back to authors who are perceived to have challenged the legitimacy of the revolution — something Libyans have particular reason to be touchy about in the face of (oftentimes Arab-led) smear campaigns against the February 17th revolution. At the present time, it is doubtful that that any honest representation involving the revolution will be well-received, particularly in the field of poetry and literature, if it expresses feelings that may run contrary to the “optimism” demanded by readers today in the wake of the revolution. Such topics, albeit overwrought, are often met defensively in the Libyan sphere, and we must learn to overcome the fervent forceful optimism and realize that not every unpleasant topic is a compromising one. For many people, there remains a lot of grief, and though no one would contest that Gaddafi’s rule was better than “now,” we must learn to accept the revolution in all its nuance. Our ideas will flop if viewed too narrowly through the lens of February 17th. There is a before, and there is an after, and to collapse the meaning of an entire year — much less 42 of them– while technically “difficult,” would be far too easy. Perhaps we should invest in making sense of our past in order to find meaning in our present.
Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa defines this “next step” for the Libyan artist as “[the expression of] things that are beyond the political moment and to express themselves, the issues that are at the core of their being, or that are at the core of our culture — the Libyan culture, the Arab culture. The problems that led to Gaddafi leading us for 43 years have not gone away.” And it is precisely the confrontation of these issues in literature that will bring to the forefront some uncomfortable truths and fiery defenses. But the lower we drop these defenses, the more honest and profound an outlook we will gain into the pain put into the struggle and what lies ahead. If we expect only glory literature, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment in more than one way.
Historical Narratives of Revolution
There is a historic narrative, and that is now a matter of who will put it together. These should be written now, published now, and amended later. A closer historic account will prevent, as much as possible, future events from shaping the view, positive or negative, with which the #Feb17 revolution is preliminarily portrayed.
What will we make of moments that were thought to be decisive but ended for naught, or the quiet ones that preceded colossal game changes? In writing too late, we run the risk of imposing our knowledge of what we now know happened upon the past; effectively imagining that we knew it all along. It is paramount that we don’t delay building an archive, or even a factual historical narrative, that we produce and record now before the narrative is tainted or embellished by whatever happens next. These stories deserve the chance to be treated, at least for now, in their own right and not as the precursor to anything else. What is archived now will be manipulated later, twisted to fit different agendas and arguments; what we stand to benefit by rushing a “history” — academically written or otherwise– is the remnants of revolutionary fervor and sentiments that will carry themselves over to other generations. It is worth preserving these facts in a context that show how much they meant to the people who watched and participated.
Antoun brings up the issue of textbooks and teaching the revolution, mentioning the Egyptian ministry “decision to remove positive references to Hosni Mubarak…from history textbooks.” But what is the point of replacing one political doctrine with another? Such sensitivities have already been voiced in Libya’s case, with complaints that some of the newly-printed school textbooks glorify the roles of some figures and cities over others. There is also an alarming trend of overtly nationalistic imagery in children’s textbooks. So how is the Libyan board of education to regulate methods of teaching history to provide equal opportunity to all revolutionary narratives, much less those of, say, Libyan supporters of Gaddafi? It is better to acknowledge the limitations of free speech in these cases and work around them then to purport one or another as the right one; if the cause is indeed a noble one, no aspect of the past should not be withheld nor censored nor rendered “unspeakable.” Denial helps nobody, and shelving portions of our history not only implies that we have something to hide, but that we are an infallible people who can only find strength in Nationalistic sentiments. Some of these concerns have been taken into account, at least in principle, in planning for the new textbooks, though how well it will be carried out we are yet to see.
Archiving a Revolution
In gathering eyewitness accounts and personal stories, we must determine the degree to which these stories belong to “us”. Often, stories of heroism and sacrifice are marked with a humble unwillingness to speak about them; so how entitled are we, as a collective people, to the pain and bravery of our brethren, and–in the case of fiction writing how much can be falsified? And should these records be opened first only to the Libyan people themselves, to foster an environment conducive to producing Libyan narratives above all, or are these things the property of humanity as a whole?